In Part 1 of this series, we heard about Mia’s struggle with debilitating OCD. Part 2 took us with Mia through depression and her doctoral degree. In Part 3 of her story, guest contributor Mia shares about her journey back into academia and her hopes for the future. Her return to academia is tinged with ambivalence, and like so many, she knows that she may eventually choose to leave for the sake of her own well-being. We may have a future post here at AMHC on the emotional and mental impact of making a decision to stay or leave academia, and we would love to hear from you if you have thoughts to share about this too!
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In my last post, I shared my experience finishing my PhD. But, because I had survived rather than thrived, my employment opportunities were severely limited. Where does one go from here?
A year after completing my PhD I was working in administration, unsure whether I wanted to find an academic position – and convinced I wouldn’t get one even if I tried. There’s no denying from my CV that I did what I had to do to pass, and nothing more. I shied away from collaborative relationships, and avoided presenting my research because I felt there was nothing to say. I felt that my PhD study was a failure due to the lack of data, and that no one would want to hear about it. I regret that in many ways, I wasted the PhD experience. I’ve spent the past year trying to catch up in my spare time, to publish papers, to spread the word of my research using social media. Ultimately though, I’ve run out of data to play with. If I want to continue in academia, I need an academic position.
A few months ago, I decided I couldn’t continue in my administrative job – I strongly disliked my role and the environment, and my depressive episodes began to have more of an impact on my physical health. Constant headaches, back and neck soreness, and digestive issues (presumably stress-related) were the final straw, and I gave notice without another job to go to.
Yes, I’ve used impressive statistical techniques, but conceptually I haven’t a clue what I’ve just done. Where do you draw the line between imposter syndrome and just plain incompetence?
It was at this point that I started to look seriously into academic positions. But I don’t feel like this was a conscious decision to go back to academia. This was me following the expected path, because what other path is there? I’ve heard people talk about careers in industry or using your research skills in business, but when trawling employment websites for a suitable position, the only thing I seem to be qualified for is academia. So, I started to apply, accompanied by an intense fear that I might actually be successful – and only once I had started in the role would they realise I was completely incompetent and unprepared for the demands of academic life. Yes, I’ve used impressive statistical techniques, but conceptually I haven’t a clue what I’ve just done. Half the time when conducting peer review I can’t check the accuracy of their interpretation because I don’t understand what they did, so I avoid comment and focus on other aspects of the paper. I then experience immense guilt for having accepted the offer to review in the first place. Where do you draw the line between impostor syndrome and just plain incompetence? There’s also the embarrassment – I’d told key researchers in my field that I was not continuing in academia, only to have my name pop up as lead author on a new paper. How do I explain that?
Now, as I try to figure out what it is that I actually want, my thoughts go up and down like a see-saw. First, I’ll come to the conclusion that my mental health makes me unsuitable for this type of work, and that I should abandon any plans to re-enter academia. But then another part of me will counter, why would I let my condition win? If this is what I’m meant to do with my life, why should I let my stubborn brain stop me from achieving my dreams? And to the other side I wonder, are they really my dreams? Is it my mental health stopping me from enjoying my work, or is this simply not the right field for me? And then I decide that I simply don’t enjoy this kind of work, and should find something I do enjoy.
The problem is, I’ve never found any type of work that I enjoy. In fact, forget work, there are very few tasks or experiences in life that I can say I enjoy. So that means it’s just my mental health, right? I just need to kick this thing and I’ll finally be happy and can run off into the sunset with my PhD and my papers and my endless career potential?
I know that I’m capable of great things.
But I’m deeply worried. I know that I’m capable of great things. I know I couldn’t stay any longer in a mediocre job. There’s no doubt that I am passionate about my research, but this passion is so fleeting. Part of me wonders whether maybe it has just never been the right place, the right opportunity. Maybe I’ll find the right job and a supportive team and finally have found something to make me happy and give my life purpose. But deep down, I worry that for me there is no such thing as the right job. I fear repeating the same cycle I’ve lived out twice before. That the motivation and passion I felt on the plane will, over time, turn into boredom, then anxiety, and then I’ll want to escape again.
I just read everything I wrote. I’ve purposely avoided editing it so far, because my words are reflective of my thought process [Editor’s note: don’t worry, we’ve got your back Mia!]. Jumping from one side of the argument to the other – ultimately, to continue, or not to continue? I’m no closer to figuring this out than I was when I started seven years ago. I’m going to give it a go, of course I will.
I only hope that if I do finally decide that I’m on the wrong path, I’ll have the courage to find another way.